The announcement that Netflix will enter the original programming market has been met with typical response: entrenched incumbents fob it off as the natural evolution of their business ("don't worry, be happy") while early adopters predict blood in the streets and major realignment within the industry ("I'm mad as hell and won't take it anymore").
Those of us who labor on the margins of show business do so largely as a result of being shut out of the mainstream system, where projects pursue audiences identified largely by age not interest. Rather than serving audience interests with many smaller budget movies, Hollywood's quest is the illusive demographics of blockbuster offerings, thus centralizing investment, revenue and distribution, at the expense of both quality and choice.
And the simple truth is that many of us are on the margins by choice: we're just not interested in spending our careers chasing the 14 to 25 year-old market; I have nothing to say to them that hasn't already been said and they wouldn't listen anyway.
Television has faithfully followed the basic Hollywood model. Need a lesson in economic and programming inertia? Just flip on any broadcast channel. The infrastructure supporting broadcast TV is expensive and serves essentially a single-function mission: deliver a pre-packaged programming schedule of entertainment which requires you to conform to that schedule, not the other way around.
Thus investment, programming and revenue all centralized to something only slightly more acceptable than the BBC or the Soviet system. Real competition is held at bay by franchises granted by the FCC and enforced by the federal government; "competition" is but a byword bandied about in expensive boardrooms.
Today, infrastructure allows programming to control audience and that's the wrong way around in a society that bugles choice at every corner. But lets be clear, revenue always follows infrastructure first, content second, and show business is no different. Note that in the phrase "show business" it's "business" that is the noun, "show" the adjective.
But while "show business" has not changed its emphasis, "infrastructure" has. It no longer implies towers, transmitters, relays, affiliates, franchises. It now boils down to a single word: broadband. The great arbiter of choice turns out not to be the courts, not legislative bodies, nor public television -- technology is now Soloman's sword. The wider the bandwidth, the wider the choice.
Broadband supports multiple delivery systems and content platforms. From internet access and movies to phones and games, broadband is the delivery means of the present, evermore so, the future. It is the great decentralizer.
But that's not the story, here. That's really just the background. The real story is that Netflix is a content company, not a technology company. It has no broadband of its own, it has no national infrastructure in the traditional sense. All it has is content. And finally, things have turned the right way around: content is driving the bus. Again. For a change.
What is significant here isn't that you can get movies from Netflix, nor even that it has entered the high-stakes game of original programming. What is significant is that as a content company, it can let YOU decide how you interact with its content. And based on the decisions you make, it can iterate its offerings to provide you more of what you like.
VCRs were born of the audience's demand to view programs it might otherwise miss on account of that bothersome intervention we call "life". TiVo made it so you didn't have be an engineer or even know a 15 year-old kid to make it work. DVR was right behind it with a "me too" product from cable companies. But these all worked with slotted programming schedules set by networks, cable companies, etc.
The wild-eyed promise of Netflix is that a content company will have the incentive and ability to allow you to watch your favorite shows when you want to, irrespective of a "programming slot" -- and based on what you watch, provide you with more of it.
At present, Netflix allows you access to nearly any movie you want to watch; the natural progression is that they would do the same with series entertainment. Want to watch a sitcom? Go to Netflix and choose which episode you want -- or watch them all at once. There won't be a schedule as to when they are shown, merely a list of what's available.
Content will continue to follow infrastructure, but infrastructure will no longer control programming, scheduling, and choice. The irony is that as bandwidth continues to increase, it provides more opportunity for those creating content. Producers will be free to create content based on audience interest, rather than advertiser supported age groups -- which advertisers would much prefer, anyhow. And just as the studio system collapsed under its own weight and excesses, so will scheduled programming. You may not have heard it here first, but I'm getting my money down early.
None of this makes it any easier for independent producers like me to create content -- we still have to come up with compelling stories that are well told and executed. What it does mean, however, is that we no longer have to aim our efforts solely at formulaic offerings that will meet the needs of advertisers supporting the 8PM to 9PM Wednesday slot. We no longer have to think solely in terms of time slots and audience demographics. We can start thinking in terms of audience interest and content feedback. Content is back and it doesn't have to be bad!
For indies like me, seeing Netflix come online is like watching the great Oklahoma land rush set up. It's a brave new world if you're not afraid to lose. And if you're used to losing, then there's nothing very scary at all.